Monday, October 12, 2015

Pirates of the Carbon Era

By Bob Ferris

NC Wyeth illustration from Treasure Island
I often am amazed, disappointed, and sometimes angered when I see the “who-knew-what-when” pieces about climate change that are treated as hot-off-the-presses news.  After all it has been well-documented that Exxon-Mobil (1,2,3,4) has known about climate change for decades.  In fact, I and many others in the environmental community had extensive discussions with energy executives more than 20 years ago about the need for carbon sinks and mitigation to offset carbon emissions.  Along these same lines, it seems counter-intuitive for C. Boyden Gray a lawyer working in the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s to conceptualize emissions trading (what we now know as Cap and Trade) if there was not an understanding that smokestack and tailpipe emissions—including carbon—were a problem.

It has also been reported repeatedly that the Johnson Administration and Congress were told about this issue in the 1960s.  And legendary film director Frank Capra of It's a Wonderful Life fame even made a movie about the danger of carbon emissions and climate change in the late 1950s (see above video). That anyone expresses astonishment that any informed party “knew” about climate change seems a little like someone arriving home to a street filled with cars on their birthday and then struggling to find their “surprise” face when folks and balloons emerge enthusiastically from behind the furniture.

My disappointment too comes from the idea that people would be shocked to discover that the fossil fuel interests knew about climate change and yet did not tell us their product was killing the planet.   In terms of this Boy Scout-like expectation of the energy industry, my only logical response is that in the very truest sense the folks at Exxon and their allies are basically modern day pirates.   Their goal is to pay the lowest price for assets owned by all of us—cheating us when they can (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)—and then selling back to us our own processed resources at the highest price possible.  In this they often play games in terms of making something plentiful appear scarce until their ability to stockpile that product is exceeded (1,2).

And elements of the fossil fuel industry are certainly not above corrupting officials (1,2,3) or commandeering a political party (1,2) to get blind eyes turned in their direction by the folks who should be regulating them or to stop Congress from actively leveling the playing field with measures like windfall profits taxes or reduced subsidies when the abuses get entirely out of hand.  (And if you are under 40 or so and the idea of a windfall profits tax is foreign to you, these are taxes on extreme profits that Congress used back when they were only rented rather than owned by the fossil fuel industry.)

In thinking about the fossil fuel industry as a pirate one might look towards Jean Lafitte (pictured above) as a model.  Certainly not good but not all evil either when it suited him.
I bring in the “pirate” imagery above to make clear the folly of expecting self-destructive openness or even truth from this sector.  The pirate’s flag is not a smiley face or heart sign but rather a skull and crossbones that they only show when they are close enough that their victims knowing the true nature of their intent is pretty immaterial to the outcome.  This is not to say that these “pirates” do not bring some benefit to society through product and economic activity, but it is to say that our eyes should be open and our hands on our wallets in our dealings with them as they are neither trustworthy nor altruistic in spite of their claims to the contrary.  And they surely should not have a hand on the reins of this country in any way.

And now on to my anger.  The source of my anger comes from American voters who seem to believe that periodically checking a box on a ballot without questioning party platforms, legislative performance or the consequences of regulatory trajectories is adequate effort to protect our collective interests regarding climate change or even our democracy.  I grow irate when I watch these reflex voters fumble their democratic responsibility so nimbly while gripping tightly to a flag they hardly understand.

While I am certainly quick to criticize, I am not generally a name-caller per se.   But it is really hard not to use pejorative words like stupid, lazy or irresponsible when referring to this large chunk of our citizenry.  Now I understand that propaganda outlets such as Fox News and small market papers tend to distort reality and control the information flow—particularly about climate change.  Anyone who has driven across the United States understands that the quality of journalism and the federal-politics-to-pork-bellies content ratio of newspapers changes appreciably as one goes farther from urban centers and the coasts.  It all tends to confuse and make it more difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff and don’t even get me started on industry supported think tanks or their associated minions spreading myths and rumors (1,2,3).

Drawing of Valley Forge during the winter of 1778.  
The above really makes me wish that I had some sort of time machine where I could put a few of these misinformation-sponge, Tea Party patriot, climate change deniers around a campfire at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-1778 to share with the soldiers serving there the severe hardship of sorting fact from fiction and being vigilant of the democracy these brave lads handed us nearly 240 years ago.   My sense is that it would be exceedingly hard to walk very far or fast with a frost-bitten foot or a Scrimshawed powder horn firmly and forcefully placed where the sun does not shine.

Revolutionary era powder horn engraved with a map of New York.
I suspect that some of my peripheral anger at the above stems from talking with those who want so badly to emulate and honor our Founding Fathers without understanding that these leaders had incredible minds and were scholarly (1,2,3).  They ate information, often spoke dead languages and debated vigorously drawing frequently on the religious, political and moral philosophers of their time and the distant past.  They drew heavily on these ancient writings and even some Native American sources when they designed their new country based on a governance system never once mentioned or alluded to in the Bible.

I fully understand that high school and college can be challenging environments, but you certainly cannot paint yourself as patriotic or lay claim to any share of whatever American Exceptionalism we still possess if simply exiting the education system is your end intellectual goal.   In this regard I am stunned by irony when I meet someone who did not take calculus, chemistry or physics in high school rage about immigrants from China or India who did.  If those who complain about these immigrants really want to identify those who are dragging this country down and keeping them from the jobs they want, they have only to walk in front of a reflective surface to see the responsible party.  But I digress.

With climate change we face a massive crisis made worse because the “pirates” among us and their allies have been far too successful at creating and then confusing an increasingly gullible public (1,2,3) that should be better informed and more vigilant in their efforts to protect the governmental gift given them by past generations.  In many ways we have essentially let the pirates take over our country and convince us that we need to reduce the restrictions on piracy.

In Robert Lewis Stevenson’s immortal, coming-of-age-novel Treasure Island young Jim Hawkins pays often and dearly for his trust of the pirate Long John Silver (see above video trailer of Disney's 1950 version of the novel).  In the end he sees Silver for what he is—both good and bad—then deals with him fairly, justly and with compassion.  Jim and the United States have much in common for we too must come to terms with our pirates treating them fairly and honestly but with the understanding that they are indeed pirates not deserving of our trust.  We must radically readjust the current relationship with the fossil fuels industry and exercise caution to prevent their tall tales or actions from causing us further harm.

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